When such a scenario arose, a means of communication had been established, a panic button. Speaking into the phone, Yuri gave his encrypted cell number, followed by a code word that traced back to the Cold War.
Smoke billowed out the hall of the Star-Spangled Banner gallery.
Gray kept his group clustered in the vestibule just off the central atrium of the museum. They had pulled painters coveralls over their street clothes and covered their faces with respirators. Gray had also splashed paint on their clothes.
He leaned and stared back into the flag gallery. Smoke burned his eyes, but he spotted the flames dancing and racing across the pools of paint thinner he’d spilled across the gallery’s wood floor. A moment later, emergency sprinklers engaged. Water jetted in a flood from ceiling spigots. An alarm klaxon rang out sharply.
Gray took an additional moment to make sure that the glass-enclosed display for the banner remained dry. He knew the display was an environmentally controlled chamber meant to preserve the icon for generations to come. For now, the case should protect the flag from the smoke and water.
Satisfied the treasure was safe, Gray turned his attention to the central atrium. Fresh shouts and cries echoed as smoke panicked the workers. The contractors were already on edge with the spreading word of a bomb scare.
And now the fire alarm and smoke.
Gray peeked around the vestibule’s exit and into the atrium.
Already summoned by the bullhorn to proceed to this single exit, men and women milled and pushed. Many hauled tools and backpacks. Panic surged the crowd toward the doors, where the armed men had been conducting a systematic search of each exiting worker, including being scented by a pair of German shepherds.
“Let’s go,” Gray said.
Under the cover of smoke and terror, the three joined the pressing throng. They split up to make it less likely they’d be recognized through their disguises. As they joined the panicked mass, it was like jumping into a storm-swept sea along a rocky coast. Pushed, shoved, jabbed, and jostled, Gray still kept a watch on the others.
The evacuating workers surged toward the doors. Despite the press, the armed men kept some semblance of order outside. Searches continued, but more cursory and swift. The dogs barked and tugged at their leads, aroused by the noise and confusion.
Gray gripped his shoulder bag tighter, hugging its weight to his chest. If need be, he could bull through the armed line, like a linebacker making a rush for the goal.
To the side, Gray spotted Elizabeth being shoved through a door and into the arms of one of the guards. She was brusquely searched and urged to move on. She passed one of the dogs, who barked and tugged at its lead. But it had not recognized her scent. The dog was merely agitated and confused by the press of people. Fresh paint and smoke also helped mask Elizabeth’s scent. She stumbled away from the cordon of men and out into the national Mall’s twilight.
Off on the other side, Kowalski hit the line next. To aid in his disguise, he carried a gallon of paint in each hand, which he was mostly using to knock people out of his way. He also was searched. Even the cans of paint were opened.
Gray held his breath. Not good. The panic was not disrupting the search as much as he would have liked.
Passing inspection, Kowalski was waved out into the Mall.
Gray pushed out the door and met the palm of one of the guards.
“Arms up!” he was ordered. The command was bolstered as another guard leveled a weapon at his chest.
Hands searched him swiftly. From head to toe. Luckily, he had stashed his ankle holster and weapon back in the gallery’s trash can.
“Open your bag!”
Gray knew there was no way he could resist. He dropped the bag and unzipped it. He pulled out the only thing it held: a small electric sander. The rest of the bag was shaken to make sure it was empty—then Gray was waved out of the way.
As he passed the barking dog, Gray noted a man standing to the side, dressed in a suit. No body armor. He had a Bluetooth headset fixed to his ear. He was barking orders, plainly in charge. Gray also remembered seeing him at the dock of the natural history museum.
Passing him, Gray spotted the credentials affixed to his jacket pocket.
Defense Intelligence Agency.
Gray noted the name in bold type: MAPPLETHORPE.
Before his attention was noticed, Gray continued out into the Mall. He circumspectly joined the others well away from the museum and the confusion, just a trio of workers reuniting. Gray retaped his radio’s throat mike under his jaw. He attempted to raise Sigma Command.
Finally, a familiar voice responded.
“Gray! Where are you?”
It was Painter Crowe.
“No time to explain,” Gray said. “I need an unmarked car at the corner of Fourteenth and Constitution.”
“It’ll be there.”
As he headed toward the extraction point, Gray held out a hand toward Kowalski.
The large man passed over one of the gallons of paint. “Just carrying the thing creeps me out.”
Gray accepted the paint can with relief. Submerged at the bottom lay hidden the strange skull. Gray had chanced that no one would explore too closely the depths of the thick latex paint, especially carried by a worker whose coveralls were splashed with the same paint. Once the skull was cleaned, maybe they’d finally have some answers.
“We made it,” Elizabeth said with a ring of relief.
Gray did not comment.
He knew this was far from over.
Halfway around the world, a man awoke in a dark, windowless room. A few small lights shone from a neighboring bank of equipment. He recognized the blink and beat of an EKG monitor. His nose caught a whiff of disinfectant and iodine. Dazed, he sat up too quickly. The few lights swam, like darting fish in a midnight sea.
The sight stirred something buried. A memory.
…lights in dark water…
He struggled to sit up, but his elbows were secured to the railings of the bed. A hospital bed. He could not even pull his arms free of the bedsheet. Weak, he lay back down.
Have I been in an accident?
As he took a breath, he sensed someone watching him, a prickling warning. Turning his head, he vaguely made out the outline of a doorway. A dark shape stirred at the threshold. A shoe scraped on tile. Then a furtive whisper. In a foreign language. Russian, from the sound of it.
“Who’s there?” he asked hoarsely. His throat burned, as if he had swallowed acid.
Silence. The darkness went deathly still.
He waited, holding his breath.
Then a flash of light bloomed near the doorway. It blinded, stung. He instinctively tried to raise a hand to shield his eyes, forgetting his arms were still secured to the bed.
He blinked away the glare. The flash came from a tiny penlight. The shine revealed three small figures slinking into his room. They were all children. A boy—twelve or thirteen—held the light and shielded a girl maybe a year or two younger. They were followed by a smaller boy who could be no more than eight years old. They approached his bed as if nearing a lion’s den.
The taller boy, plainly the leader, swung to the younger one. He whispered in Russian, unintelligible but plainly a concerned inquiry. He called the younger boy a name. It sounded like Peter. The child nodded, pointed to the bed, and mumbled in Russian with a ring of certainty to his words.
Stirring in the bed, he finally rasped out, “Who are you? What do you want?”
The taller boy shushed him with a glare and glanced toward the open doorway. The children then split up and crossed around the bed. The leader and the girl began freeing the straps that bound his limbs. The smaller boy held back, eyes wide. Like his companions, the child was dressed in loose pants and a dark gray turtleneck sweater with a vest over it, along with a matching cable-knit hat. The boy stared straight at him, unnervingly so, as if reading something on his forehead.
With his arms freed, he sat up. The room swam again, but not as much as before. He ran his hand over his head, trying to steady himself. Under his palm, he found his scalp smooth and a prickly line of sutures behind his left ear, confirming this supposition. Had he been shaved for surgery? Still, as his palm ran across the smooth top of his head, the sensation felt somehow familiar, natural.
Before he could ponder this contradiction, he pulled his other hand into view. Or rather tried to. His other arm ended in a stump at the wrist. His heart thudded harder in shock. He must’ve been in a horrible accident. His remaining hand trailed across the tender sutures behind his ear, as if trying to read Braille. Obviously a recent surgery. But his wrist was calloused and long healed. Still, he could almost sense his missing fingers. Felt them curl into a phantom fist of frustration.
The taller boy stepped back from the bed. “Come,” he said in English.
From the clandestine nature of his release and furtive actions of his liberators, he sensed some amount of danger. Dressed in a thin hospital gown, he rolled his feet to the cold tiled floor. The room tilted with the motion.
A small groan of nausea escaped him.
“Hurry,” the taller boy urged.
“Wait,” he said, gulping air to settle his stomach. “Tell me what is going on.”
“No time.” The tall boy stepped away. He was gangly, all limbs. He attempted to sound authoritative, but the cracking in his voice betrayed both his youth and his terror. He touched his chest, introducing himself. “Menia zavut Konstantin. You must come. Before it is too late.”
“But I…I don’t…”
“Da. You are confused. For now, know your zavut is Monk Kokkalis.”
Making a half-scoffing noise, he shook his head. Monk Kokkalis. The name meant nothing to him. As he attempted to voice his disagreement, to correct the mistake, he realized he had no ammunition, only a blank where his name normally resided. His heart clutched into a strained knot. Panic narrowed his vision. How could that be? He fingered the sutures again. Had he taken a blow to the head? A concussion? He sought for any memory beyond waking up here in this room, but there was nothing, a wasteland.
What had happened?